Opinion Columns & Blogs

Commercial fishers need water for their ‘crops,’ too

In this April 14, 2011, photo, a fishing boat returns to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.
In this April 14, 2011, photo, a fishing boat returns to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. The Associated Press File

Drought has hurt us all, let’s be frank. San Joaquin Valley residents know how it’s hurt their region. Let me share some experiences from the coast, where we rely on salmon to make a living.

Baby salmon born in Central Valley rivers migrate to the sea, but they’re lousy swimmers. They evolved to rely on river runoff to carry them to the Delta, bay and ocean.

To salmon fishers, water flowing to the sea isn’t wasted. It carries our future. When too much Delta water is diverted, it breaks the conveyor belt needed to carry baby salmon to the sea. We need it most from January to mid-June as baby salmon migrate.

Today, like some of you, some fishing families can’t pay the rent. Some can’t pay for basic equipment – boats, rope, line, motors, hydraulics, boat yard bills, port and launch ramp fees. Many charter boat operations, tackle stores, restaurants and motels that make much of their annual income on salmon customers are in financial trouble.

One fisherman told me he will sell his car to fish in Oregon this year, since California prospects are so dim. In normal times, a healthy salmon fishery generates $1.4 billion in economic activity and 23,000 jobs.

We’ve all agreed to abide by the best science to manage water shipments to those south of the Delta, but not beyond what’s needed to keep salmon and endangered and threatened species alive. Fair is fair. We’re beyond the point where some fish are dying. In the last few years, we’ve seen record low numbers of some native fish species, some on the brink of extinction. Salmon populations have plummeted.

Let’s be clear. The problem is not fishing, which is highly regulated. The problem is our salmon runs haven’t received the cold river water needed to reproduce. Of the few fish that have hatched, many have been lost because the river runoff conveyor belt gets cut by Delta pumping.

The Delta pumps are so powerful that they force water in the Delta to flow upstream, along with salmon swimming in that water. Those salmon usually die. Federal law imposes limits on these “reverse flows” to reduce the number of fish killed by pumping. Those reverse flows are now at the maximum levels allowed under state and federal law.

Over the past few weeks, a few surviving endangered baby winter-run salmon were tracked into the Delta. Because of the rains, some called for abandoning the rules and pumping more. But the Golden Gate Salmon Association and other groups opposed, saying the legal line had to be held.

After two years of deep losses of fish protected by the Endangered Species Act and other laws, waiving the pumping limits could lead to a disaster. Only in the past few days, now that the pumps are killing juvenile salmon, has Delta pumping been trimmed. But protections for salmon have never required the pumps to be turned off.

Think for a minute about the California we want to leave behind for our children. We’re headed for a California devoid of much of the life that makes this place so special. Most Californians don’t want to lose healthy rivers, a healthy bay and Delta, salmon runs, coastal communities, and our thriving marine ecosystem.

Fishers would never advocate that we should stop all farming in California. Like farmers, fishers rely on water to produce food. Yet the increased water diversions advocated by some is damaging California’s salmon fishery and the coastal and inland communities that rely on it.

Everyone has a right to advocate for their interests in the water debate, but let’s agree that water is shared by all Californians and needs to be used in a balanced way.

John McManus is executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, a Petaluma-based nonprofit whose mission is to protect and restore California’s largest salmon producing habitat.

  Comments